Friday, June 06, 2014

Civilization--whence it came, where it is going.

Let's talk about the word "civilization" for a moment.  It's not as fashionable  a word as it used to be.  Very few colleges and universities still have courses in western civilization.  Most now teach world history instead--and world history often focuses on the harm the West has supposedly done to the rest of the planet.  Bu tit remains an important word, in my opinion, and I've been wondering lately not only about what it means, but where the definition came from.

Here's one definition from an online Merriam Webster's dictionary:

 " a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically :  the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained"

 We'll come back to that in a minute, but first I want to ask something different: where did the word come from? What is its root?  Wikipedia, quoting a recent academic reference work, states that
"the word civilization comes from the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state,"  And that, it seems to me, is a more relevant angle from which to ask where the world is and where it is going.

I would suggest that this definition is indeed critical to modern western civilization, since it refers, in effect, to the establishment of civil authority capable of mobilizing the resources of society, and specifically to a civic authority as opposed to a religious one  Going back to Merriam Webster, we might add that such a civilized authority relies on the written word for communication and administration, and thus requires a high degree of literacy.  It also usually involves the dedication of substantial resources to the arts, and the now-dead civilizations of which we have the clearest picture left behind buildings, sculptures, and, later, paintings, all of which reflected a substantial diversion of resources to these pursuits.

Putting the artistic and political aspects of the question together for a moment, I would suggest that civilization is characterized by a certain level of devotion to an abstract polity, to law, and to a certain more or less exalted idea of the arts.  Sometimes the primary objects of devotion are political, as in the Roman Empire and Greek city-states; sometimes they are religious, as they were for centuries of human history.  Our modern civilization, which originated in the 17th and 18th centuries, has been characterized by a devotion to science and inquiry for their own sake.  I might add that during the formative centuries of our civilization, my own profession, history, focused largely on the development of civilizations, as reflected in their political and religious behavior.  The existence of a historical profession dedicated to reconstructing the past and putting it in a broader perspective with the help of original documents was itself, I would suggest, an important, and perhaps a critical, element of our civilization, which developed itself and spread in part because people could read about its past.

One might also argue that civilizations develop and persist because their political and religious leadership believes in them, and more or less insists that the rest of their nation does as well.  National histories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries focused on the great achievements of their own nations--although the greatest historians, it has always seemed to me, were frequently most critical of their own nations.  (One can observe this even in one of the very first works of modern history, the Athenian Thucydides's history of the Peloponesian War.)  Religious authority enforces itself through religious observance, which begins in earliest childhood.  Generations of western plutocrats and governments have established and maintained museums and subsidized operas and symphony orchestras.  And crucially, during the last two centuries or more, the act of becoming an educated man or woman required a great deal of effort and concentration on subjects of very marginal relevance to day-to-day life, from the study of Latin and Greek to the mastery of a musical instrument., to the reading of numerous lengthy novels or plays by a single author.  To be sure, every generation included some students who gladly did these things out of love, but they were the minority.  Many did them out of duty--but they did them all the same.

I would argue that a combination of technology and our reverence for the economic market have severely weakened many of these traditions in modern civilization, especially in the United States.  For the last half-century, devotion to a higher purpose has fallen more and more out of favor in most of the political spectrum.  A good deal of our left abandoned traditional politics in the 1960s and 1970s and has never come back.  As I have mentioned many times, the Left's favorite causes now focus on rights for individuals belonging to previously marginalized groups, not to the question of what we as a nation can and should do together.  The right, as I have often had occasion to note, distrusts government in almost any form, and now even denies government one of its most basic powers, the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  We have allowed corporations--including financial institutions--once again to achieve power that rivals, or exceeds, that of governments.  But that is not all.

It seems to me we are threatened nowadays because so few of us take our fundamental political institutions very seriously any more.  How many of us--including politicians and judges--have the same commitment to the Constitution and its values as the Founding Fathers, or Lincoln and the men who fought to preserve the Union, or Franklin Roosevelt, or the Warren Supreme Court?  The answer, I would suggest, is not very many, and fewer every year, because the Boom generation, now passing from power, was the last generation that had to learn much about those subjects in college.  The decline of the historical profession, in my opinion, has done enormous damage to our situation.  Believing, apparently, that their parents' and grandparents' legacy would assure them and their children a stable political life forever, Boomer and now Gen X historians have given up teaching political or diplomatic history, for the most part, and it shows.  Barack Obama, our first Gen X President, rarely if ever makes a serious historical reference in one of his speeches.  The Right has actually created an alternative version of history featuring Founding Fathers who rejected the separation of Church and State and rights to bear arms that never existed--something that would have been much harder, in my judgment, had historians been doing their job.  The same thing has happened in much of the western world, even in countries where institutions still function somewhat better and more of the national budget is spent on the common good.

The written word, that cornerstone of civilization, is surely becoming much less important to daily life.  College students read less and publishers publish shorter books.  Newspapers are threatened with extinction.  Video clips are replacing news stories as the currency of public discussion.  Fewer and fewer Americans are learning foreign languages.  All these things, I think, reflect declines in civilization as we have known it.

And as for the arts, they too are in a parlous state.  New works of serious drama rarely apper, partly because of academic fashion.  Serious fiction rarely engages the kinds of issues it did in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Classical music survives, but fewer and fewer American young people learn to play it. (The arts have been cut out of many school curriculums.)  Television, as often noted, has been something of a bright spot in the last 10-15 years, with truly serious dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad playing a role comparable, perhaps, to novels by Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.  But films are in their worst era since sound came in nearly 90 years ago.  Even forty years ago, many Hollywood producers or studios used some of the profits from junk to make important films for grown-ups.  Indeed, in the 1970s there was a real mass audience for true art.  Now action, technology, and cartoons rule the field.

Civilization, to recapitulate, requires genuine belief in and devotion to higher political and artistic purpose.  That kind of devotion is not increasing: it is declining.  Intellectual change has always been an extremely potent historical force.  I wonder how much of our civilization is destined to continue over the next half century.




pbrower2a1 said...

"Culture" has become just another form of commerce. In that it now differs little from dealings in crude oil or pork bellies. If it allows an adequate profit it happens. If it does not allow an 'adequate profit', then it does not happen. The big record companies used to have heavy involvement in classical music because it had a significant niche. Retailers like the now-defunct Tower Records and Borders, the moribund Musicland and Sam Goody, and the extant Best Buy and even Barnes&Noble used to have significant selections of classical music. Now try finding a retailer with any involvement in classical music.

There used to be markets for niche tastes, and 'obsolete' pop culture (folk, jazz, rhythm-and-blues) is just as much a victim of the culling of anything that can't be sold in large numbers to the mass audience. We all live in a Wal*Mart culture for now.

But "for now" is the rule. The Wal*Mart culture leaves emptiness in its wake even if it churns profits by selling culture that quickly ends up in a landfill. Some of us fogies remember that in a time of emotional distress that medieval polyphony at the least gave us the impression that there was something to believe in, that J S Bach brought formal mastery, that Mozart and Schubert offered musical beauty in its purest, that Beethoven offered the still-revolutionary power of intense feeling, that Brahms brought depth, and that Mahler and Sibelius gave us insights into a more profound universe than what we know.

So the music takes time to appreciate to its fullest. Bach's B-Minor Mass, Mozart's Divertimento for String Trio K. 563, and Bruckner's Eighth Symphony are worth the time even if they devour time. A bad movie or a sporting event can devour similar time, too.

ed boyle said...

I am now reading a biography of Miles Davis "So What" and he was an accomplished genius with classical training, extending the art form into new areas and not just pumping out cheap pop as is nowadays the case.

I am worried about the lack of truth in the press. Essentially they are just paid lackeys of govt. and industry. Whereas earlier the press served as a controlling instance "The Fourth Estate"

"Media as the "Fourth Estate"
Access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons. First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a "checking function" by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

In the United States, the media is often called the fourth branch of government (or "fourth estate"). That's because it monitors the political process in order to ensure that political players don't abuse the democratic process.

Others call the media the fourth branch of government because it plays such an important role in the fortunes of political candidates and issues. This is where the role of the media can become controversial. News reporting is supposed to be objective, but journalists are people, with feelings, opinions and preconceived ideas."

It seems to me that the lack of education and independence in the media (takeover by "Murdoch", advertising revenues and too close relationships to powerful people, who are given "soft interviews")
results in a lack of control function. If the truth is ignored in favor of parroting political opinion then injustice is facilitated. Essentially truth is suppressed in favor of economic opinion. This results in wars of convenience to obtain resources or influence. The source of all of this is the lack of general education and the use of media as base entertainment for the population.

Here an analysis of the approach of Orwell to what is actually happening to our society now in "1984" novel (6000% growth in sales since Snowden revelations)

ed boyle said...

(a bit more)

"There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole subsection-- Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak-- engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography..." (p. 39)


"Yet such is not the fullest expanse of the oligarchy's lower-level indoctrination. As with the children, the Party possesses an avenue to the exploitation of negative sentiments, as those brought to fruition by base entertainment, and their direction outward, against dissent. During week-long celebrations of Hate (as their name concedes), the masses are drawn into the whirlpool of rituals, chants, and exclamations as rotten as the material to which they have become accustomed. Mr. Orwell describes one of these abominations, "It had a savage, barking rhythm which could not exactly be called music, but resembled the beating of a drum. Roared out by hundreds of voices to the tramp of marching feet, it was terrifying." (p. 123) This implies, of course, an eternal farewell to Herr Mozart and Monsieur Chopin, who have been plunged into oblivion, for their creations are a key to the uplifting of the human spirit, which must remain at the level of sewer if the Party is to successfully inflict its intended suffering. Again, something must fill the void. Tribal rantings are the totalitarians' answer."

We saw this before Iraq War and now regarding Russia and Ukraine situation. In dictatorships of pre-WWII Europe hate frenzies were typical as in Pre- WWI Europe generally a mass hysteria was worked up by a generation of uneducated journalists and population willing to kill for its own sake, ignoring facts as getting in the way of primitive instinct. They walked blindly into war. A sensitive analysis of facts on the ground requires a quiet spirit, uncluttered by pornogrpahy and crime and sensationalism. A refined sensibility is a sign of a civilized, intelligent person. The press and the arts in general (TV series, movies,talk radio, news (60 minutes, Bill Moyers, etc.) has a duty of a-political muckraking against the powers that be and their statements, to test them for correctness. The wall of silence in the West against antisemitism and fascism paired with absolute corrupt oligarchy and using weapons of mass murder against a civilian population in Ukraine, simply due to political convenience is a sign of civilizational decline at its worst.

ed boyle said...

(Some last comments, somewhat humorous and even off-color)

I thought of a satirical commentary similar to "The emperor's new clothes" fairy tale."

A child sees the TV report where hundreds of civilians are killed in Ukraine. Followed by this is a
statement by American and European leaders that "Russia should stop its aggression or else". The child asks its mother why Russia is killing all the civilians with their bombers, why are they so evil and the mother replies "no darling, our good friends the Ukrainians are doing that?" and the child looks confused and pained at its mother and says "then why are we telling the Russians and not the Ukrainian govt. to stop killing?"

Another joke would be that the West tells Putin to go **** himself in one month or massive sanctions will be introduced. He says that this is a physical impossibility but he will go to a doctor and do his best, if it will bring peace with the West and they will leave his country in peace.

The absurdity of the hate and ignorance spread by the 1984 type infotainment to the plebs of Orwell's 1984(our current consumers) is appalling. This will lead to our downfall. WWIII is around the corner without an informed public stopping the monied interest in their tracks. Democracy survives only through an informed public and a free and critical press.

João Carlos said...

There is more than one civilization, not only the european civilization. Meso-american, Inca, Egyptian, Persian, Arabian, Indian, Chinese, for a few examples. Some civilizations are extinct, but other ones are around for some thousand years and exist for more time than european civilization. Look at the Chinese, that is not only a civilization more ancient than ours, but too because they just surpassed USA as economic power.

What we are seeing happen to USA is something happened before, Empires decline and eventually collapse. While the european civilization is probably in decadence, the power is moving to Chinese civilization, where it was one thousand years ago.

Maybe you need re-read Toynbee. European civilization is not the center of the Universe and not the most important conquest of mankind.

Add too some reading about Kondratiev cycles. When mankind move from a Kondratiev wave to another one normally Empires are changed for other ones. There are more than one cycle happening and not only the generational cycle.

Larry said...

Your posts always serve as food for a famished mind David. Thanks

tructor man said...

Another insightful but sad commentary. PBrower's point is very good also.
On your analysis of the word "civilization": perhaps in the past 50-90 years, it subsumed, subliminally, the concept of "community" -- i.e.,. that pursuit of 'higher values', higher achievement, inherently included the notion of participation in local, palpable, civilization: one's living community. This may have also subsumed "the common good".
The marketing of cultural aspects of civilization (and our inner emotions and meta-language) has contributed to the narcissism now enveloping the Left and the Left's cultural idols.
This inward turning paralleled the decline of labor unions, the failure of USSR to create a true workers' paradise or counter to Randian capitalism run amok, and the all-out commercialization of our psyches. The Right's turning against government was a similar inwardness: that no communal or collective action could be either profitable or even moral, and surely could not protect privilege.
Religion in the US ha become a poor mans refuge from fear, rage, and hatred. In the Islamic world, a murderous hope for reactionary dominance. (It's no accident their treatment of women).
What can be done? More Edward Snowdens may emerge; more craven bankers may commit more blatant crimes; the GOP may self-destruct in ignorance of demography. Maybe even Gen-Xers & Millenials will tire of 24/7 Instagrams, Google & NSA monitoring their every selfie... Perhaps the History profession can purge itself of navel gazing?
Wish I could be more optimistic.

Rupert Chapman said...

A very thought-provoking post, as usual. I will add only one word - polite. I am struck, in looking on the internet at discussions (they aren't debates, since the present no arguments and only follow the pattern 'flat assertion, flat contradiction, personal abuse')by how spectacularly ill-tempered and bad mannered they generally are. Like 'civil' (which can also have the same meaning), polite derives from a word for 'city', in this case from the Greek 'polis'. So to be 'polite' or to be 'civil' is to behave like someone from the city, where people are crowded together and must behave in a way which allows them to get along with one another.

This raises another interesting issue, in that so much of the heated contention in America today arises between the liberal cities and the conservative small towns and countryside - the Latin 'paganus' (see, conveniently, Wikipedia - 'The term pagan is from Late Latin paganus, revived during the Renaissance. Itself deriving from classical Latin pagus which originally meant "region delimited by markers", paganus had also come to mean "of or relating to the countryside", "country dweller", "villager"; by extension, "rustic", "unlearned", "yokel", "bumpkin"; in Roman military jargon, "non-combantant", "civilian", "unskilled soldier". It is related to pangere ("to fix", "to fasten") and ultimately comes from Proto-Indo-European *pag- ("to fix").[12]'. So, also, the terms 'boor' and 'boorish' derive from the Dutch 'boer', meaning 'farmer', or 'countryman'. All of which demonstrates that there is nothing at all new in the current debate between town and country, but perhaps also that there is a certain loss of conviction within the urbs (Latin). I do particularly like your comment about the shift of emphasis from what we can do together to our rights as individuals in the thinking of the left. This is definitely a post-Kennedy shift, as illustrated by the famous phrase from his inaugural address, and it is ground which we can ill afford to yield to the followers of Ayn Rand.

Jim Rush said...

Good Morning:

I will be brief here as I know I am a guest.

Thank you all for your comments. I read the post several times a week to see what has been added.

Dr. Kaiser: Thank you. Your thought-provoking post as once again haunted me for days.

Actually, this is something I have long pondered. Even though you use recent examples, I suppose our similarity of views is not that extraordinary considering our ages are so close.

I recall reading similar t6houghts from the fifties and again from the 1920's.

Many years ago I was pleasantly surprised to find the exact sentiments from ancient Greece.

Let me close by adding these words by Evlyn Waugh in "Brideshead Revisited."...when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again."


Bozon said...


Great stuff.

Stepping into culturally sensitive waters here, for sure.

all the best

Zosima said...

David Kaiser said...For the last half-century, devotion to a higher purpose has fallen more and more out of favor in most of the political spectrum...Civilization, to recapitulate, requires genuine belief in and devotion to higher political and artistic purpose.

Well, you described aspects of higher artistic purpose -- read more books, study more history, go to more symphonies, etc. -but you never mentioned what the higher political purpose should be.

tructor man said...

It seems to me Dr. Kaiser means by "higher purpose" that which advances civilization: reason over instinct; scientific thought over magic; privacy of individual spirituality over coercive religion; and above all, the sense of common purpose for the common good. This latter was most evident in the US during WWII, witness the incredible cooperation and purpose of our forefathers who organized and executed "D-Day" and the Normandy Invasion to destroy a truly evil empire. Many say we as a nation or a people, could not do anything similar today.

David Kaiser said...

This replies specifically to Zosima and João Carlos.
There are indeed many different civilizations based upon different higher purposes, some of which seem quite bizarre to modern western eyes. But they have all forced society to organize and devote resources to a broader goal, even if it was just to build huge pyramids for the eternal glory of the rulers of Egypt. One could argue, indeed, that almost any common goal is better than no common goal at all. As for what it SHOULD be, I would go back to the New Deal principles of better economic planning, strict regulation of banking to avoid crises, better infrastructure, and the promotion of peace around the world. But my real concern is that US society in particular is losing any sense of common purpose at all.

Bozon said...


Re your comment thirteen:

"But my real concern is that US society in particular is losing any sense of common purpose at all."

I would have to agree with that. It was not always the case of course; there was a lot of idealism, and a fair amount of utopianism, there in the past.

Unfortunately, relatively little realism, or insight.

Even those (unfortunately) misguided sentimental and utopian sentiments, and their ideological underpinnings, are more or less gone.

all the best

João Carlos said...

Dear professor,

"There are indeed many different civilizations based upon different higher purposes, some of which seem quite bizarre to modern western eyes."

Well, rationalism is not something only western (european) civilization developed. Chinese developed it too, they had great thinkers and philosophers.

The big lie we learn from history (not real History) classes is that the rationalism come from ancient Greece to our current civilization as an uninterrupted line. Sadly, the truth is that democracy and rationalism died with the end of roman empire and we had the medieval times in Europe, that is correctly name the "Dark Ages". But dark ages only at Europe, Arabian civilization was going to its max and China had a golden age.

"[...]I would go back to the New Deal principles of better economic planning, strict regulation of banking to avoid crises, better infrastructure, and the promotion of peace around the world."

And China is currently building a huge and new infrastructure (for example, the ˜'Silk Road" going from Beijing to Europe), they are a country with central planning and now they are trying to make the bank sector be more closely regulated. And China is now the number one economy, just surpassed USA, that is now number 2.

Empires die, ever. Civilizations too die, slowly. Other civilizations will continue to live and to have a common goal. And some civilizations have a very rational common goal.

Skimpole said...

There's a lot to chew on in this latest post, much of it questionable. Is it really true that fewer American learn foreign languages? And how would one measure this? After all, at the beginning of the 20th century a large proportion of Americans were first and second generation immigrants. One would think that the number of Americans who know Spanish and Chinese was at an all time high. If one means the American political elite, yes there was a time when Jacqueline Kennedy could charm people with her French. But it's hard to imagine Harding or Truman, or Ford or Reagan showing the same kind of curiosity.

"Serious fiction rarely engages the kinds of issues it did in the 19th and 20th centuries." This is so vague as to be meaningless. If it means there is a failure of historical perspective, one should clarify what contemporary novels fail to do this, and what models the current generation is amiss in ignoring. This article by Perry Anderson certainly provides a more thorough perspective:

"How many of us--including politicians and judges--have the same commitment to the Constitution and its values as the Founding Fathers, or Lincoln and the men who fought to preserve the Union, or Franklin Roosevelt, or the Warren Supreme Court?" Actually these are likely to be the only historical issues the middlebrow media keeps the public informed about. Founders idolatry is an endemic part of America's political culture.

One should not confuse the AHA and OAH's treatment of diplomatic history with America's political culture. The two are actually quite distinct issues. For political reasons, American conservatives would prefer the truth about Vietnam not become common knowledge. Consider the 1980 election. With the three candidates that year, one could hear the ideas of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Martin Peretz and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, This shows the limited debate the American foreign policy establishment would prefer to have. This is not going to be changed with more Bancroft prizes and AHA baubles for diplomatic historians.